The evening before I went to Havana, I sat starboard in the back of a boat slapping over the waves on Biscayne Bay just offshore from Miami. The sun was setting on the Florida coast side of the bay over what now seemed like just a sliver of land, and the moon was rising on the other side as Key Biscayne slipped out of sight. The air was warm and fresh, and an American flag flapped in the wind behind me.
On my side of the boat were three 9/11 emergency workers, film producer Michael Moore and me. On the other side were an attorney from San Francisco, a college student from Michigan, a maintenance worker from Miami and a radio announcer from California. All of us were there because we had some sort of trauma within the American health care system. But for that moment we were all riders on a boat traveling in the bay and wondering what was ahead in Cuba.
Sitting with three people who had been at Ground Zero on 9/11/2001 was mind-altering. Each had a story of horror, and they had a bond with one another -- though they had not met before this trip. One of the men had what some called "the thousand mile stare." Etched in his face were sadness and an emptiness that hurt to watch. The other male 9/11 responder was big and tough and filled with bravado -- a New Yorker in every good sense of the term. The woman among them was six or seven weeks pregnant, suffering with her breathing difficulties and a determined, but tiny woman.
I imagined each of them facing what they faced on 9/11. I thought of myself horrified but safely distant in Colorado on that day while these brave people watched explosions and death and took into their bodies the physical, mental and emotional toxins that haunted them still -- and probably always would.
But on that boat in the bay we were all quiet. The wind blew through our hair as the daylight drifted away, and we were left with our imaginings. The sound of the boat's engine and the flap of the flag droned in the background. What brought us to this spot and this moment was pain. What was easing us into what was to come was an emulsion of nature and wonder and fear and hope. I wanted to tuck the image away somewhere safe in my soul. I wanted it etched there forever. What I did not know was how many moments like it would come in the days ahead.
For me, the past 20 years had been filled with fights about insurance coverage, humiliation about not being able to pay large deductibles and co-pays, and general strain on my marriage and my family that resulted from the financial pressure. Though we never, ever went without insurance, we had been bankrupted by the crushing medical costs not covered by insurance. Few people understood how we got into that financial boat, and we not only faced my husband's heart disease, my cancer and several major medical crises, but also the shame of failing financially. We felt so alone and lost.
I wrote a response to Michael Moore's call for "health care horror stories" back in early 2006, and here I was nearly a year later as part of this amazing group of fighters and heroes, traveling on this unknown journey together.
As the boat reached the dock at Bayside Marina in Miami, I knew I had to take one more chance to speak to Michael before he was off to work on plans for filming the next day. I had botched my first greeting with him as I tried to express my admiration for the work he does. So, I wanted to try again, and I sat back down next to him after everyone else got off the boat.
I pulled one of my father's handkerchiefs from my shorts pocket. When my father died in 1995, I took several of his freshly washed and pressed handkerchiefs and stored them away. He was one of the most dapper men I ever knew, and he always had his hankie handy just in case a tear -- or a nose -- needed wiping. Whenever I knew a special moment was coming, I had tucked a couple of those cotton handkerchiefs in my pockets so I could try to be as graceful and brave as my father.
On this Miami evening, I asked Michael if I could say something to him. "Yes," he said patiently, though he looked tired as I am sure we did after a long day of filming. "This handkerchief was my dad's. And he was the bravest man I ever knew. He served in World War II, and he taught me to love my country. I want you to have this," I handed the cloth in Michael's direction.
"Oh, no. Are you sure?" he said with surprise. "Yes. My dad taught me that you don't change this nation by being a wimp, and you have to be brave enough to speak out. I want you to have this -- he would have wanted you to have this -- to wipe your brow, when you have worked so hard," I did not cry, and I was so glad the words came out coherently this time.
Michael took the handkerchief from me and said, " OK. Thank you so much." He wiped his forehead and put the cloth in his pocket. My message was delivered and I stepped off the boat confident that this trip was the right thing to be doing and that I was supposed to be on it. I watched as Michael spent another hour greeting people and having his picture snapped many times by people who had helped out on shore all day. He was patient and kind to each person. If it was any kind of act, I sure didn't detect it. Tired and in need of some water, we all waited for those moments to wrap up.
The evening breeze was sweet and brief before we loaded on vans for the drive back to the hotel.
Donna Smith, who appears in Michael Moore's new movie SiCKO, is currently living and working in Aurora, Colorado, with her husband Larry, who also appears in SiCKO. Ms. Smith was not able to get the treatment she needed in the U.S. for her health issues, even though she was insured, and she traveled to Cuba with Michael Moore where she received the care she needed for free. SiCKO opens in U.S. theaters on June 29.
© 2007 The Huffington Post